Social platforms should not allow incitement to violence. But should they become censors of opinions?...
In a conference on digital freedom in Rome 10–13 December I was invited to give a talk on freedom of speech and the social media, in particular Facebook and Twitter. I pointed out that freedom of speech is also the freedom to express views which may generally regarded as wrong or offensive. Paradoxically it is when you hold unpopular opinions that your rights need to be protected the most. Indeed, John Stuart Mill argued in his Essay on Liberty that unpopular and implausible views should not be suppressed by fallible censors, and that instead the views considered correct would gain from vigorous challenges. Even the Catholic Church appoints a ‘devil’s advocate’ to find evidence against potential saints.
Today, Facebook and Twitter are the most popular platforms for expressing opinions on the internet, enjoying almost a monopoly in this sector. In my talk I agreed that they had to implement some minimal rules, for example not allowing child pornography, sedition, incitement to violence and harassment of individuals. But the rules have to be clear, transparent and narrowly defined, I added, and since Facebook and Twitter are not only private companies, but also common carriers, like phone companies, private roads and hotels, they should not engage in censorship of opinions, just because they were unpopular or regarded as offensive by some. Phone companies do not disconnect people because they are speaking nonsense. The owners of a private road connecting two cities is not allowed to ban women from driving on the road. Hotels cannot refuse entry to people of colour.
I argued that recently Facebook and Twitter (which frequently seem to act in conjunction, making the point on monopoly more relevant) have transgressed the acceptable minimal rules, acting like censors rather than providers of venues for discussion. Twitter closed the account of contrarian Milo Yiannopoulos after he wrote offensive tweets about African-American actress Leslie Jones. I would have agreed, if Yiannopoulos had in his tweets revealed her address or phone number or directly encouraged his fans to assault her. This would have been unacceptable personal harassment. But this is not what he did, as far as I can see. He was just offensive. Both Twitter and Facebook banned President Donald Trump permanently in January 2021. The official reason was that he had tweeted after the abominable attack on the Capitol on 6 January that his voters were patriots (without referring to the attack) and that he would not be attending the inauguration of the new President. In these two tweets, Trump was not inciting to violence. They do not, I think, provide sufficient grounds for silencing a man who had served as President of the world’s most powerful country for four years and who had just received almost 75 million votes in a presidential election. If the two social media could do this to him, what can they then do to the small fry?
I mentioned two other examples: For a while, Facebook and Twitter both banned any mention of a report by the New York Post, one of the largest newspapers in the United States, about material found on a laptop belonging to the son of President Joe Biden. This material seemed to suggest that the son was using his family connections to make lucrative deals in Ukraine and China. The material was probably illegally obtained, but in the past that has not been a problem for other newspapers. Again, for a while Facebook and Twitter both banned any mention of the theory that the corona virus had escaped from a Wuhan laboratory, whereas now this is considered to be the most plausible hypothesis about its origin. Needless to say, the pandemic caused by the Wuhan virus has in the last two years turned the world upside down and cost millions of lives.
In Rome I did not have the opportunity to relate these considerations to my country Iceland, although her recent history provides intriguing examples. Normally, Iceland is a typical Nordic country, peaceful and prosperous. But the 2008 financial crisis came as a shock to the Icelanders, not least because all the three major banks of the country collapsed in October. There was a widespread feeling that the bankers and political leaders had to be guilty of some serious crimes (although in a report for the Icelandic Ministry of Finance I pointed out that the main reason for the collapse was that Icelandic banks were denied the same liquidity assistance as the three Scandinavian central banks and the Swiss National Bank received from the U.S. Federal Reserve Board, and as Scottish banks received from the Bank of England). Between October 2008 and January 2009 there were widespread protests and even riots on the streets of Reykjavik, with several assaults by mobs against Parliament House and the headquarters of the Central Bank of Iceland, CBI (where I served on the Board at the time). The government, a coalition of the centre-right Independence Party and the centre-left Social Democrats, felt compelled to resign, and a left-wing minority government took over, upon which the protests immediately stopped.
During these tumultuous times, the online social platforms, both Twitter and Facebook, played an important role: the organisers of protests used them to announce such events in advance, and speeches delivered at meetings were published there. One of my colleagues at the University of Iceland, Jon Gunnar Bernburg, has written a book in English on the riots, Economic Crisis and Mass Protest: The Pots and Pans Revolution in Iceland (2016), observing that the interviews he conducted ‘revealed the pivotal role of social media (e.g. Facebook) in spreading information on upcoming events’ (p. 102). But the same question arises as in the case of the assault by a mob on the Washington Capitol: What is the difference between the clear individual responsibility which each member of the mob bore for their joint attack (and for their individual actions, if identifiable) and a possible collective responsibility which might be shared by people who did not even participate directly in the attack?
One of my old teachers at Oxford, political philosopher David Miller, analyses this issue in his book National Responsibility and Global Justice (2007). ‘Different participants in the mob act in different ways. Some actively attack persons or property; others shout abuse or issue threates; yet others play a more passive role, running alongside the activists, urging them on and contributing generally to the atmosphere of excitement and fear,’ Miller writes. He adds:
The specific intentions of each participant at the beginning of the riot may have been different: some may have started out meaning to inflict physical damage; others may have wanted to make a political point; and so forth. What matters is that each person took part with the same general attitude—“teaching them a lesson”, “showing them that we mean business”, etc.—and each made some causal contribution to the final outcome, whether this involved engaging directly in destructive acts, or merely in supporting and encouraging those who did.
Miller believes, in other words, that a riot is a process in which some people may be involved even if they do not commit any destructive acts themselves. By just supporting and encouraging the perpetrators they make, as he puts it, some causal contribution to the final outcome.
Other philosophers who have analysed the concept of collective responsibility, for example Jan Narveson, may not agree with Miller. They maintain that people are primarily responsible for their own words and actions and not for the dubious interpretation by others of their words, especially if they do not directly encourage others to commit destructive acts, however objectionable and bellicose their talk may be. But at least for the sake of argument we might apply Miller’s analysis to the Capitol riot on the one hand and to the street riots in Reykjavik on the other hand. It should be noted that President Trump never directly urged his supporters to attack the Capitol and that he eventually asked them to stop, even if perhaps he said too little of sense too late. I would conclude that it is at least doubtful that he should be held responsible for the attack. Instead, he should enjoy the benefit of doubt. Indeed, an attempt to impeach him for inciting insurrection did not gain the necessary two-thirds majority in the Senate.
The situation was somewhat different in Iceland. Some left-wing politicians, in particular Alfheidur Ingadottir, Member of Parliament for the Left Greens, actively assisted the rioteers in front of Parliament House by giving them information over the phone about the whereabouts of the policemen defending the House, as is documented in a book in Icelandic on the riots, by journalist and historial Stefan Gunnar Sveinsson, The Pots and Pans Revolution (Busahaldabyltingin, 2013). Ingadottir’s partial responsibility for the riots thus seems clear. However, some left-wing intellectuals played a part similar to that of President Trump before the Capitol riots, not directly encouraging violence, but urging the protesters on and ‘contributing generally to the atmosphere of excitement and fear’, as Miller puts it. For example, a colleague of mine at the University of Iceland, Thorvaldur Gylfason, spoke at protest rallies in front of the House of Parliament on two consecutive Saturdays, 18 and 25 October 2008, denouncing government ministers and the CBI governors. After the second rally, protesters marched to the Prime Minister’s Residence in Tjarnargata under the slogan ‘End the Silence’. Speaking at a nationally televised ‘citizens’ meeting’ in Haskolabio on 24 November, Gylfason demanded the immediate dismissal of the CBI governors. ‘Listening to him, one got a strong feeling that Iceland was indeed a banana republic,’ a journalist wrote. Yet again, Gylfason spoke on 1 December at a protest rally in Arnarholl directly in front of the CBI headquarters: ‘The government, the CBI and many bank and business managers made such serious blunders that Iceland’s economy is close to a breakdown.’ After the rally, some participants sought to force their way into the CBI headquarters, but they were stopped by police.
On Miller’s criteria Gylfason was probably partly responsible for the riots in the front of Parliament House and for the assault on the CBI. There were however two important differences between him and President Trump. First, of course, Gylfason, a controversial Professor of Economics at the University of Iceland (whose political party advocating wide-ranging constitutional changes received less than 2.5 per cent in the 2013 parliamentary elections), was not of the same consequence as the President of the United States. Gylfason’s relative insignificance would tend to reduce his possible culpability. Secondly, Trump asked his supporters to stop the violence, however half-heartedly, whereas Gylfason never condemned or tried to stop the destructive acts of the Icelandic protesters. This would tend to increase Gylfason’s possible culpability.
Gylfason not only participated in the violent protests which ultimately led to the fall of a democratically elected government: he is also very active on Facebook where he presents conspiracy theories and engages in what some would regard as hate speech. For example, he makes the outlandish claim that Richard M. Nixon and George H. Walker Bush were somehow involved in the 1963 Kennedy murder, writing: ‘I know only of three individuals who initially claimed that they did not remember where they were when Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas and who have later contradicted themselves many times over—and who then, it turned out, had all been present at the place of assassination, Dallas: Richard Nixon, Howard Hunt and George H. W. Bush, Nixon having hired the latter two for the White House in 1969. Hunt organised the break-in at the Watergate building which drove Nixon out of office; on his deathbed Hunt confessed to his participation in the Kennedy assassination. Now we have to see whether Bush will also break down on his deathbed. J. Edgar Hoover mentioned George Bush as a CIA employee in 1962, in a memo on the assassination which much later was brought to light, but Bush says that Hoover must have been referring to his namesake.’
Another conspiracy theory presented by Gylfason is that Tower Seven at the Windows on the World complex in New York could not have fallen as the result of the 2001 terrorist attack. On Facebook, Gylfason has published a photo of the event, commenting: ‘Here it can be seen how Tower 7 collapses seven or eight hours later than the Twin Towers. The official explanation is fire in several places in the building. This has never happened before in a steel structure building.’
Gylfason’s remarks about those he considers his political adversaries are also extraordinary. He writes: ‘Members of the Independence Party talking about democracy make a similar impression on me nowadays as Nazis advertising a gas grill.’ The Independence Party, founded in 1929, has long been Iceland’s largest party, most of the time in government, very much a part of the establishment and far from being a fringe movement. But in a similar spirit, Gylfason writes about Prime Minister Boris Johnson of the United Kingdom: ‘A choirboy? Well. He was fired as a journalist for malevolent lies, continuing to lie on to the national referendum on Brexit in 2016. Why should he stop? Some people say: let us use the appropriate language, and call a spade a spade, as the Americans say. Shitbag!’
What is really significant about these Icelandic examples is that nobody has suggested that Facebook or Twitter should close the accounts of those Icelanders who in 2008 used these platforms to start violent protests and assaults on Parliament House and the CBI headquarters, in effect overturning elections by forcing out a democratically elected government. By contrast, Facebook and Twitter have not only banned President Trump, but also various individuals who, according to them, present conspiracy theories and engage in hate speech. I disagree with Facebook and Twitter. They have gone too far in censoring controversial opinions and in interpreting offensive talk as incitement to violence or hate speech. These platforms should stay open to people like Professor Gylfason. Their conspiracy theories should be vigorously opposed, and their rudeness about their political adversaries should be condemned, but ultimately these issues should be settled in the court of public opinion, not by would-be censors at Facebook or Twitter.
In the old Nordic mythology, Thor was an upright and honourable god, whereas another god, Loki, was devious and malevolent. A distinguished nineteenth-century poet and philosopher in Denmark, Nikolai F. S. Grundtvig, famously once remarked that freedom should be freedom for Loki no less than for Thor. Freedom of speech is not least the freedom to hold unpopular and even far-fetched ideas and to be provocative, even rude. It is also, of course, our freedom to try and refute misconceived opinion, or to condemn rudeness, or to ignore it.